Thirty years ago, a group of determined workers challenged the power of the British state. How close the miners came to defeating the Thatcher regime – with some Tories fearing a “revolutionary” confrontation – is revealed in cabinet papers released today.
They show that on two occasions in the 1984-5 strike for jobs, the Tory government thought they would have to concede on their plans to shut over 70 pits. The first was in the summer of 1984 when dockers went on strike. And the second time was when pit managers voted overwhelmingly to join the mineworkers.
Thatcher and her cabinet considered placing armed forces on the streets when dockworkers came out. But the cabinet was concerned that a state of emergency would lead to an extra-parliamentary challenge with “a revolutionary strategy”, in the words of Conservative policy chief John Redwood.
The National Coal Board, police authorities and local courts had to be stiffened up in the face of foot-dragging and “crumbling”, the minutes record. But using the army was a high-risk strategy, as an opinion poll showed that 71% of the country was against the deploying troops.
Thatcher sought out transport union leaders to call off the strike, her own notes reveal. The dockers returned to work after ten days, leaving the miners on their own. As we know, Arthur Scargill, the much-vilified miners’ leader, was proved right. A mass pit closure programme began in the years that followed and the industry is no more.
The cabinet papers only tell part of the story. The deeper secrets about the crucial turning points in the year-long confrontation between the miners and the state remain hidden. What was the role of the spy agency MI5 and why did the pit deputies union NACODS refuse to join the National Union of Mineworkers in strike action to oppose pit closures?
In the end, troops were used, but secretly dressed up as police constables on the picket lines. A combination of agents provocateurs within the NUM and the compliance of the Trade Union Congress proved sufficient to isolate the miners. They returned to work in the spring of 1985 without an agreement over closures.
The miners’ strike was a watershed in recent history. The years of trade union militancy versus governments was followed by the post-modern 1990s. These saw the collapse of the Soviet Union along with the rise of debt-fuelled corporate globalisation as the entire planet was drawn into unfettered forms of capitalist production and trade.
Through the creation of global trade bodies serving transnational corporations, national politics was transformed. Decisions which affect the lives of voters are now taken by bureaucrats in far away places. Political parties have adapted themselves to declining levels of participation and involvement in party activities by using the state in a “collusive manner”, in the words of the late political scientist Peter Mair.
Today’s liberal capitalist form of democracy has become an empty shell, paradoxically in the decades when leaders of the capitalist world hailed their “triumph over communism” and declared that history had “ended” with the Western political model.
The further irony is that understanding the terminal decline of bourgeois democracy, whilst analysed by a left political theorist, remains alien to large swathes of today’s anti-establishment movements.
Mair believed that the source of today’s deep political dysfunction and malaise was the result of societal change, supranational European institutions, and globalised markets, as Kurt Richard Luther has written in a tribute to Mair’s work:
“The age of party democracy has passed. Although the parties themselves remain, they have become so disconnected from wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form.”
The miners’ rightly saw the state as their enemy, just as today it stands between ordinary people’s aspirations and their achievement. Putting forward proposals for a real, deep-going form of democracy through a transformation of the political system is a key project that the Agreement of the People campaign will pursue in 2014.
A World to Win secretary